In 1997 the Labour Party returned to office after nineteen years in opposition. Almost immediately they placed the responsibility for monetary policy – the setting of interest rates and the supply of money – in the hands of the politically independent Bank of England. At a stroke, they shed their reputation for financial indiscipline, a reputation which had hung around their necks like a silver albatross for nearly three decades. (Of course, this albatross is now back and pumped full of steroids, but that’s beside the point here).
In 2014, as Michael Gove pushes his educational reforms with the zeal of a robotic dog stuck inside a cartoon, the state of our schools is as big a political issue as it has been for many years. Talk to the imaginary person in the street and the chances are that, if they are a Telegraph or Mail reader, they’ll tell you that Gove is the star of the coalition government, a no-nonsense crusader against the suffocating ‘blob’ of special interests which holds back our children. If they prefer the stylings of the Guardian, you’ll probably hear that Gove is unfit to hold office, or indeed to exist.
Surveying these bilious debates between almost completely entrenched viewpoints, it’s tempting to wonder whether an Education Secretary of the future might propose such a bold parallel to Labour’s 1997 economic reform. Creating a non-partisan, independent body to devise and implement education policy would be an enormous departure from our political traditions, but is it an idea whose time has come?
The benefits of a politically independent education policy could be enormous. If designing a society from scratch, would we want to leave the responsibility for education in the hands of people who have no experience within the field and are liable to be booted out in every tabloid-appeasing reshuffle? Where is the sense in tying educational policy to the electoral cycle, even loosely? Why does policy design, implementation and reform need to go through a partisan political process at all? When we trust educators far more than we trust politicians, why do we as a country not have the faith to put our best educators in charge of their domain?
An educational policy centre staffed by highly respected experts from within the field would undoubtedly be a sea change in British society. But think of the possibilities. The ministry (or whatever ugly bureaucratic term could be dreamed up for it) would have the sole responsibility of designing and implementing the best-quality curriculum, exams and support structures for teachers. No rapid-fire turnover of educational leaders, no pressure to bow to any party political line. No need for teachers to become disenchanted at the constant meddling with curricula. Simply the opportunity to concentrate on producing lasting reform.
This may seem like woolly idealism, but there is reason to believe that partisan political interference in education is one of the main threats to the health of a national school system and its pupils. Complaints about the politicization of education have been surprisingly widespread across nations and eras, from colonial India to present-day Moldova. Some nations have achieved astonishing educational results in the context of a heavily politicised system. Notably, revolutionary Cuba achieved improvements which are recognised as amongst the most sharp and surprising in educational history, even within a system whose textbooks were stuffed with absurdly politicized and patriotic material. However, others – for example Pakistan and Kenya – have arguably almost self-destructed because of political interference.
A major study published in 2010 by Mona Mourshed, Chinezi Chijoke and Michael Barber (all globally reputed education advisors) hammered the point home. The authors found that, while the majority of educational systems worldwide were not improving – even those with massive levels of investment – a select few were progressing well. Continuity in leadership, and the active development of future leaders from within the educational system, were pinpointed as two of the most important factors. The authors did not suggest that non-partisan bodies were ideal or desirable, but they did argue that constant electoral changes which usher in philosophical and pedagogical changes can disrupt any schooling system.
Singapore, for example, can boast one of the most rapid and extensive improvements to its education system. All but two of the posts in its Education Ministry are professional posts, filled by former teachers who have been identified and provided with opportunities for professional development. To be clear, I am not worshipping their system: the country does benefit from the political stability provided by the utter dominance of one party, and is hardly a model of democracy. Nevertheless, it would be stupid to discard any lessons from their incredible success.
Flying in the face of widespread ideas about our own educational degeneration, England was identified as another system which had performed well. The consistency of leadership on education policy under Labour over a thirteen-year period, if not consistency of personnel, apparently provided the necessary stability for this improvement. (This finding is a hornet’s nest which I do not feel qualified to prod, not here anyway.)
Of course, it is one thing to conduct hypothetical utopian experiments, and quite another to imagine how this idea would unfold in the real world. There are numerous problems with the idea of a non-partisan system. Firstly, education is an inherently political subject; witness the fiery ideological debates currently being conducted around academies, unqualified teachers, curricula (history in particular), and even the aims of education.
In light of this consideration, it would be almost impossible even to agree on the composition of such a large and diverse body. Reaching agreement on the dozens of policies required to support a successful education system would be an insuperable challenge. In particular, the idea that we might give birth to a ‘non-partisan’ history curriculum, devised by educators and supported by a majority across the spectrum of popular opinion, seems about as plausible as Russia and Ukraine tactically voting for each other at the next Eurovision Song Contest.
Even if agreements could be reached, the new body would find it almost impossible to defend against the sure-fire charge that they were imposing an elitist, unrepresentative dogma in an undemocratic way. For all its flaws, our current system at least ensures that elected representatives have the final say on legislation. It also boasts a parliamentary, cross-party Education Committee, which has teeth; in 2013 it made some fairly savage comments on proposed GCSE reforms. And although Gove has been roundly criticised for failing to consult enough experts, it would be foolish to think that any Education Secretary is going it alone; of course teachers, academics and education reformers have a role to play in the current system.
So, is the idea of a non-partisan educational body destined to remain a beautiful, but flawed and unrealistic, hope? It takes a truly great politician to voluntarily reduce or limit the scope of their powers – this is why, for example, George Washington beats George Bush – and there are numerous problems with the concept. It would not win support from important groups, it could be construed as undemocratic, education is just too political to be left to the experts. But what if a future politician did decide to put their faith squarely in those who are already trusted to educate our children, and asked educators to run the entire school system? It could be the best thing that ever happens to British education.